On June 8, 1876 – 140 years ago today – Boston’s Old South Meeting House was doomed. The building that had played a critical role in the Boston Tea Party and was such a symbol of colonial resistance that the British converted it into a stable during their 1775-1776 occupation of Boston was going to be sold for scrap, and its parcel of land redeveloped.
But 1876 was a year of symbolism, especially in Boston. The American Centennial was celebrated all over a nation still suffering from the bitter divisions of the Civil War and Reconstruction, even as it began to recast itself as a nation of machinists and tinkerers. Americans celebrated in Philadelphia, where almost 40,000 visitors per day streamed into the Centennial Exposition. They celebrated in Ohio with a bonfire made from gallons of newly tapped crude oil. They celebrated in San Francisco, with fireworks and celebrations around the critically important telegraph office. They celebrated in a rapidly rebuilding Atlanta, eager to cast off its defeated past. Black Americans saw the occasion as a chance to highlight their own history and contributions to American independence through speeches in the north and the south even as white southerners worked to keep them out of the story; a minor traffic incident in South Carolina on July 4 sparked the Hamburg Massacre that killed seven black militiamen and played a key role in South Carolina’s – and the nation’s – election that year. It was against that backdrop that the Old South Meeting House was first doomed, and then saved.
The first move to save the historic structure came from a group of nearly two dozen women of Boston’s high society. They hoped to raise enough money to buy the structure and the land, and preserve it in light of its key role in the years before the Revolution. They enlisted some of Boston’s most well known figures to help them do it: Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Many donated, many others wrote in support. They saw in the Old South a link between the ideals of the Revolution – recast in the fading light of the Civil War – and the future, as they tried to rebuild and recommit the country they loved.
“Few spots in this New World of ours,” begins History of the Old South Church of Boston, published in 1876, “are rendered venerable by so long a line of associations as is the Old South Church.” From Governor Winthrop and the founding of Boston, the work traces its connection to colonial and then revolutionary Boston: it was quite literally present at the birth, with the Old South baptism of Benjamin Franklin. By 1876, much of old Boston had been wiped away – by change, by growth, and most dramatically by fire four years earlier – a fire which had spared Old South but had burned much of the rest of the city. Old South came to be seen by residents of Boston as the final link to the old city; this seems odd to us today in a Boston that highlights its revolutionary past, but in a country modernizing as quickly as the United States was in 1876, the fear of losing the past must have seemed palpable.
But the Old South was not just a link to the past. It stood as well as a reminder of revolutionary change and action. It was at the Old South Meeting House, after all, that a protest meeting in December of 1773 became the Boston Tea Party, lionized as the first full step into rebellion – the meeting and call “That shook St. Stephen’s pillared roof/ And wrecked King George’s throne,” in the poetic words of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
This forging in the fires of liberty, according to the preservationists of 1876, made Old South the home of freedom and of equality. For, “now, whenever a wrong is done/ It thrills the conscious walls;/ The stone from the basement cries aloud,/ And the beam from the timber calls!” writes John Greenleaf Whitter in In the Old South Church. This poem, along with Holmes’ and others, were published in 1876 as a fundraising device in the attempt to rescue the building. Whittier imbues the very walls of the place with freedom; to destroy it is to unlink the modern day from the high ideals of revolution. This is Boston for him: “So long as Boston shall Boston be,/ And her Bay-tides rise and fall,/ Shall freedom stand in the Old South Church,/ and plead for the rights of all!”
And in 1876, that mattered. The Civil War was ten years ended, but the country was still trying to make sense of it. Both Lincoln and Lee had seen the war and its result as God’s will, but the peace felt different. It was still violent: southern redemptionists harassed, attacked, raped and murdered in order to preserve a system of white supremacy in a land where the end of slavery had meant the upending of an entire society. But while the Civil War’s violence was done by many people for many reasons – emancipation, reunion, defense, family – Reconstruction’s battles were over the fundamental questions of equality and membership.
By 1876, it was becoming clear who would win that battle in the states of the former Confederacy. Although the brief period of freedom and protection had allowed African Americans in the south to thrive – as businesspeople, writers, teachers, politicians – it taxed the political will of the north and enraged the defeated whites of the south. Securing the laws of equality had been comparatively easy in the face of trying to enforce them against an implacable white supremacist cause. Ten years on, many in the north questioned why their government still needed to spend capital and risk lives protecting African Americans: hadn’t slavery been ended? Wasn’t liberty achieved? Even the most ardent abolitionists began to scowl at the idea of what they saw as special treatment by the government for freed slaves, in the form of the Freedmen’s Bureau and federal military occupation. Southern politicians and newspapers inflamed these feelings with lurid reports of sexual depravations and political corruption stemming from black freedom, stories that would have fallen apart except that they were never put to scrutiny in the white press. It was easier to abandon southern blacks by claiming victory in war than it was to question whether the post-war south truly achieved those ideals that orators and poets associated with the Old South Church.
Among those who spoke out in favor of Old South was the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Phillips had been a critical figure in Boston abolitionist circles, and a controversial one: he had in 1845 called for the end of the American union if it included slaveholders, and was among the most fiery critics of both the south and of northern inaction. By 1876, as Reconstruction lost its last vestiges of large-scale northern support, Phillips was one of the few who remained in favor of strong, government-backed reform. He feared for its lack, and foresaw – unless the country could be remade in the image of New England, for which Old South stood – a splintered nation, unable to unite under a single flag, having broken “into half a dozen pieces, from a variety of causes.” Preserving Old South, then, meant preserving and promoting the only way forward for a truly united United States. In a speech delivered to the Massachusetts legislature asking for public money to preserve the meeting house, Phillips recounts a story of an Arkansas slaveholder he meets at John Hancock’s old house, similarly saved through preservationist action. The slaveholder, despite the disunion which Phillips would lay about his head, felt a connection to it – “I feel very strangely; I have never felt so before,” Phillips has him say. The power of the Old South and its ideas were rebinding the nation. Commitment to these causes – to education, to suffrage, to citizenship – these were what was needed, not withdrawal. To lose Old South would be to lose another symbolic weapon in that fight:
Why throw away any means to make men nobler, to bind citizens into closer union and stir them to broader patriotism… [s]ave everything that tends to that. Search out and gather up all that so educates the soul. When the people toil and labor to prepare such teachers, intervene and make the work easier. You circumnavigate the globe to find men to teach skill. You tempt Agassiz from his birthplace to question Nature for her secrets. Save, sacrifice liberally, to save, the teachers God has put in our streets, teachers f [sic] secrets better than any Nature can show,- of law, order, justice, freedom, brotherhood, self-sacrifice, the nobleness of that life which serves man, and the happiness of his death who leaves the world better for his having lived. Genius can mould no marble so speaking as the spot where a brave man stood or the scene where he labored.
Let Old South, then, stand. Let it stand as a teacher of the new nation emerging from the ashes, just as Old South remained from the ashes of Boston. Let it proclaim equality and suffrage as did the men who in Phillips reading did so in 1776*.
As poet James Freeman Clarke, speaking for the building itself in The Old South Speaks, echoes, this building is the ark connecting the distant past with the glorious future. Yet the present remained contested. For the intellectuals of Boston, a threat to the Old South Church was a threat to those fragile ideals upon which they believed the Union had been built, and upon which the recent crisis had rededicated it. It was the rock and foundation upon which the enterprise was built.
All human things are evanescent;
Old Boston now is nearly gone;
And yet it would be very pleasant,
To see the Twentieth Century born,-
To be the link together keeping
Three centuries with one life instilled,
Down time’s majestic stream still sweeping,-
An ark, with sacred memories filled.
The Old South Church was indeed saved. Purchased by committee, it was restored with state funds – the first project to use public money for the preservation of a historic building in the country’s history. It was a monument to American liberty and equality, a link between the most distant parts of the American past and the new country that was being constructed around it. Yet it also served as a salve: a reassurance that the fight had been won and liberty secured, despite the troubled realities of Reconstruction. It was a way to bring the disparate parts of the nation back together in friendship and brotherhood, despite the attacks on liberty that only worsened with each year in the former Confederacy. It was a way of reframing the present by restoring the past, which makes it one of the greatest American symbols of all.
*This post originally misrepresented the views of Wendell Phillips, both on Reconstruction and on the meaning of the Old South Church, suggesting that Phillips, like most of his abolitionist contemporaries, had given up the fight for equality in the south. This could not be further from the truth, and was an error in research which I regret.